Any devoted Stany fan knows that Barbara had to overcome a great deal to beat the unforgiving odds in her life, let alone triumph in the face of them. From childhood abandonment, to poverty, to sleezy abusers and all out tragedy, she left no stone unturned when it came to uncovering life’s dark side. Fortunately for everyone, when Life gave her lemons, Barbara smashed them right back in Life’s face—must have taken a note from Cagney and his grapefruit—and then made herself a glass of lemonade, of course. The word you’re looking for is “Survivor.”
Equally, in the plots of her films, when tossed to the bottom of a well without a rope, Stany in her nearly superhuman way would always climb tooth and nail back to the surface. I for one would love to serve in General Stanwyck’s battalion, as I’m sure any fan would. For whether it’s Life, Love or War vs. Stanwyck, Stanwyck’s always gonna win.
MOTHER COURAGE: A LIST OF BARBARA STANWYCK’s FIERCELY FEARLESS FILMS
Stany once said in reference to her craft and diversifying her performances, “I have to find a way to portray my 40th fallen female in a different way than my 39th.” As film history has shown, she did. As you will see, she also found, at a minimum, 14 different ways to portray the quality of bravery in her many memorable characterizations. With no further ado, and in the hopes of inspiring you during these less than optimistic times, here is a chronological list of the films in which Stanwyck showed us the many flavors of Courage:
1. Night Nurse (1931).
In this pre-code classic, the only thing standing between a cruel drunk mother, the crooked chauffeur out to steal her fortune, and the impending murders of two sick, undernourished children is “Night Nurse” Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck)– and her buddy Maloney (Joan Blondell). Up against the triple threat of money, power and crookedness, the feisty and devoted Lora honors her oath to protect her patients, whatever the cost.
Courage Lesson #1:
Stand up for what’s right, even if your life is on the line (and you have to stand up to a violent and violently attractive Clark Gable).
2. Shopworn (1932).
In this pre-code movie, Kitty Lane (Stanwyck) loses her father in a mining accident and consequently, like Cinderella, becomes a waitress and essential slave to her hateful aunt and uncle. Finds love in a young wealthy student, his family tries to buy her out, she refuses, she is then sent to jail for a crime she did not commit. Upon her release, she becomes a theater superstar, flaunting her status before her former flame and proving the fact that she was fully capable of saving herself all along. (If this sounds like a soap opera, just remember that this story is told in 66 minutes. Let’s face it, anyone on Team Stany would follow her through eternity, let alone one melodramatic -fun!- hour).
Courage Lesson #2:
It does not matter how bad it gets, channel all that bad luck, all the anger…Let rage fuel you, but stay in the driver’s seat! In the Star Wars Universe anger may lead to the dark side, but in a Stanwyck movie or a pre-code movie, properly channeled, anger leads to the very top.
3. So Big! (1932).
A Chicago teacher turned farmer must overcome poverty, widowhood, brutal winters and an “overdose” of cabbage fields to provide her son with an education and future. Before Stella Dallas, Stanwyck had plenty of self-sacrificing practice in So Big! In this film, she gives up every luxury and every comfort for her son, and her martyrdom earns her top-billing over Bette Davis– though the two only shared one scene together. As a side note, this was one of Stanwyck’s favorite movies.
Courage Lesson #3:
Be Courageous for the next generation.
4. The Purchase Price (1932).
Running away from a mobster, a chorus girl ends up on a brutal depression-era farm in North Dakota– as a mail order bride, no less. In true Stanwyck fashion, not only does she become the greatest farmer in North Dakota, she also learns to deliver babies, care for children, survive brutal winters, and fend off fires. She also conquers our hearts right along with that of her brute of a husband—portrayed by the great George Brent.
Courage Lesson #4:
Make the Most of any circumstances. Never stop learning and never stop fighting. You never know where your tenacity may lead you nor how it may inspire those around you.
5. Union Pacific (1939).
Postmistress Mollie Monahan (Stanwyck) is caught between the love of Dick Allen (Robert Preston) and Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea), as well as the plot of a crooked politician trying to sabotage Union Pacific Railroad’s westward construction. Being the only woman at the end the railroad line is not easy, but Stanwyck and the great director Cecil B. DeMille sure make it look like a lot of fun!
Courage Lesson #5:
Paving the way, being the first to do what has never been done, is the most daunting of tasks and the very definition of courage– particularly when performed by a woman in a man’s world.
6. The Great Man’s Lady (1942).
Behind every great man, there’s always a great woman… At least, that’s the saying. In a Stany flick, this would be better re-phrased as, “If a guy has Stanwyck in his corner, there’s nothing even the biggest chump in the world can’t accomplish.” Similar to Shopworn above, there is so much happening in this 86-minute sweeping western/biopic/tragedy that it is hard to summarize. Essentially, Stanwyck falls in love and things go downhill from there… Nonetheless, at the bottom of 109 years, Stany’s character can look back on a life rich with meaning and full of her token bravery. (This was one of Stanwyck’s favorite films with her favorite director William Wellman).
Courage Lesson #6:
Overcoming tragedy is courageous. Love always triumphs.
7. Lady of Burlesque (1943).
Strip-tease/burlesque star Dixie Daisy (Stany) must play detective when two of her partners show up dead at the theater. Meanwhile, the “Show must go on…” This gem is a confoundingly lighthearted and charming mystery in which murder plays second fiddle to the delicious drama of backstage catfights. A guilty pleasure that keeps on giving, it pairs Stanwyck and “Wild Bill” Wellman yet again, making it their fifth! collaboration on this “Courage” list!
Courage Lesson #7:
If a deranged person is trying to kill you and your livelihood – or when things get tough – don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t let it rattle ya’, keep a cool head and it just may save you. (Being smart, sexy and cynical doesn’t hurt either).
8. California (1947).
In this historical Western, Stanwyck plays a woman of dubious reputation who tries to move up the ladder of life in Gold Rush era California. While initially rejected by the righteous Ray Milland, no worries; Stanwyck always finds a way to get what she wants, even if she has to keep company with a dangerous sea captain with political ambitions to do it. (One could argue who is actually in more peril in that equation…). This movie has it all: romance, adventure, political drama, etc. And it’s Stanwck’s first Technicolor movie, so we can see her bad-ass self in living color this time, which is reason enough to watch!
Courage Lesson #8:
Keep your friends close but your enemies closer. And when the latter are at their weakest, that’s when you finish them off. Courageously…
9. The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947).
Stanwyck portrays a wealthy and sweet woman who falls in love with a struggling painter, Bogart (who wouldn’t?), during a vacation in Scotland. The only obstacle between Bogie and his new muse? His wife. Mysteriously, his wife passes away, and Bogart marries Stany, but it soon appears that she may be headed for her predecessor’s same fate. Will Stanwyck have the strength to both wise up and face up to her villainous husband? This guilty pleasure has it all: romance, suspense and, of course, the first and only pairing of Stanwyck and Bogart in their primes!
Courage Lesson #9:
Always be willing to face your fears…(even if it’s your husband trying to kill you).
10. Jeopardy (1953).
Before Baja California was filled with all-inclusive, posh resorts, it was a desolate piece of land– sparsely populated with one-off crazy vacationers and the occasional, dangerous fugitive from justice apparently. Stanwyck had a chance to show off the well-honed stunt skills she so loved in this action-thriller-adventure. Desperate for help and in a race against time (and wide-open space), Stanwyck’s Helen Stilwin lures a fugitive (Ralph Meeker) to help her son and husband (Barry Sullivan) who are trapped under a piling at low tide.
Courage Lesson #10:
We all have a tiger inside us waiting to come out. Sometimes desperate measures call for unleashing it… (Or, In Stanwyck’s character’s words, “If I have to seduce a psychopath to save my family, so be it”)!
11. Cattle Queen of Montana (1954).
Sierra Nevada Jones (best name ever) must fight a villainous rancher to regain the land that is rightfully hers with the help of a government official, (played by none other than THE ultimate future government official, Ronald Reagan). Stany rides a horse, camps outdoors, shoots, and fights Indians and rival cattle ranchers in this super campy and super fun Allan Dwan technicolor Western.
Courage Lesson #11:
A woman can do anything a man can do in the West– with lipstick, in high heels and backwards.
12. Witness to Murder (1954).
In this Hitchckonian film (released a few months before Rear Window), a single, middle-aged woman is staring out her window when she witnesses a neighbor (George Sanders) murder a young woman. Unfortunately, when she goes to the police, no one believes her. The plot thickens when the murderer uses his cunning to manipulate the situation, inducing others to believe she is a crazy old maid and herself to question her own sanity.
Courage Lesson #12:
Believe in yourself even when others don’t! As an exception to the general rule, when everyone’s against you, it may just be that you are the only sane person in the room.
BONUS TRACK COURAGE FROM STANWYCK:
13. Baby Face (1932).
Okay, this one’s not so much a courage movie as a uniquely intoxicating and empowering film for women, but why not? Fueled by bitter ambition after being sexually exploited all her life, Lily Powers (Stany) decides to turn the tables and exploit the hapless men at a big city bank by gleefully sleeping her way to the top– leaving wrecked lives in her wake, no less. As she uses the leering executives who mistakenly believe they’re exploiting her, she becomes the embodiment of every man’s nightmare: a sex object with a brain. Remember, in a pre-code movie, anger leads to the very top!
Courage Lesson #13:
Sleeping your way to the top is not courageous… But it takes courage to know what you want and do whatever it takes to get it! (And perhaps a bit more courage to admit when you’ve gone a smidge too far…).
14. Crime of Passion (1957).
A wised-up journalist (Stanwyck) gives up her career to marry a police detective (Sterling Hayden). While this seems an unlikely move– especially in Stanwyck’s Universe– love or lust can cloud even the brightest minds. In a masterful portrayal of domestic life for a 1950s housewife, Stanwyck realizes the trap she has set for herself and the grave mistake she has made in marrying, well, a total wimp! The natural step when domestic life becomes too much to bear may be divorce, or the Revolutionary Road route, but for a Noir-Stany character the answer is obvious: plot to kill your husband’s boss and ensure his promotion. Folks, please don’t try this at home, but do cheer Stanwyck on from the safety of your very law-abiding homes instead.
Courage Lesson #14:
Rebel against limited expectations, even if you fail…
Lots of Pre-Codes and lots of Westerns on this list! Thank you, Stanwyck, for refusing to ever play the victim and for always playing women standing at the helm of their own destinies. As I am writing this list, I feel more empowered and stronger than ever; ready to face any circumstance, come Hell or high water! What about you?
Lobby Card credits to Heritage Auctions